August 15, 2008 / 6:03 PM / 11 years ago

Guantanamo trial may proceed without defendant

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - An accused al Qaeda videographer abandoned his hearing in the U.S. war crimes court at Guantanamo on Friday, setting up what could be a fast trial with no defendant and no defense.

In this courtroom illustration, Ali Hamza al Bahlul appears before a military commission at Guantanamo Naval Base August 26, 2004 in Guantanamo, Cuba. REUTERS/Art Lien/POOL

Yemeni defendant Ali Hamza al Bahlul had intended to act as his own attorney but the judge ruled that he lost that right when he left the courtroom under escort. Bahlul said he would boycott further proceedings and return to hear his sentence after the trial ended, presumably with his conviction.

“I do not have any trust in this legal farce,” he said through an Arabic-English interpreter. “Continue this illegal play in any way you wish.”

Bahlul’s military-appointed lawyer, Air Force Maj. David Frakt, asked for a speedy trial and said he would honor Bahlul’s request to put on no defense at all.

“I think he thinks this circus has gone on long enough,” Frakt said after the hearing at the U.S. naval base in southeastern Cuba.

Bahlul, who was first charged in 2004, has repeatedly denounced the Guantanamo tribunals as illegitimate and declared his intent to boycott, only to show up at his next hearing to denounce them again and repeat his reasons for boycotting.

But under the tribunal rules, Frakt’s request for a speedy trial could force the proceeding to start within 90 days, pushing the much-criticized Guantanamo tribunal into fresh uncharted territory.

“To proceed without al Bahlul, without mounting a defense, destroys any possibility of any appearance of legitimacy and fairness,” said Jennifer Turner, who is monitoring the trial for the American Civil Liberties Union.

The prosecution has the burden of proving the charges, regardless of whether defense lawyers present any evidence or arguments.

Bahlul is accused of preparing al Qaeda recruiting materials, including a video glorifying the 2000 attack that killed 17 U.S. sailors on the warship USS Cole, preparing the videotaped will of September 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta, and operating communications gear for Osama bin Laden.

He is charged with conspiring with al Qaeda, soliciting to commit murder and providing material support for terrorism and faces life in prison if convicted.

ALLEGIANCE TO BIN LADEN

At his May arraignment, Bahlul renewed his allegiance to bin Laden and admitted carrying out many of the acts he is accused of but said he did not consider them to be crimes.

At his hearing on Friday, Bahlul mentioned last week’s conviction of fellow Yemeni Salim Hamdan, the first prisoner to see his trial completed in the special U.S. tribunal created to try foreign captives on terrorism charges outside the regular civilian and military courts.

“The other day you have rendered a verdict in Salim Hamdan’s case and now you can start my case,” Bahlul said.

Hamdan was found guilty of providing material support for terrorism by acting as bin Laden’s driver and occasional bodyguard and weapons courier in Afghanistan. He got a 66-month sentence that was far short of the 30 years prosecutors sought, and that will end in late December because he was given credit for most of the time he has been held at Guantanamo.

It was unclear whether Bahlul expected similar leniency but he said he was eager to see his case settled.

His initial charges were dropped when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the first Guantanamo court system illegal in 2006. New charges were filed in February under the revised court system and Bahlul was arraigned in May.

He returned to the courtroom on Friday to find the judge who had presided over his case for years had retired and a new one was appointed.

“You are the judge and I am the accused,” Bahlul cheerfully told the new judge, Air Force Col. Ronald Gregory, during a discussion of his rights. “At the same time, you are my enemy. We don’t really accept this kind of logic.”

Editing by Michael Christie and Cynthia Osterman

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